At the end of everyone’s life, there’s a dash; one that links their year of birth and date of death. That simple little dash represents a lifetime of experiences, from first dates to last dances, from youthful optimism to middle-age crazy, from cradle to the grave.
I thought I knew my grandmother, my father’s mother. She was a constant in my life, particularly during my college years and beyond. What a character she was, by turns generous and selfish, kind and cruel. The only girl among six brothers, she was named Lady Iola because her mother wanted her to be addressed like royalty. Perhaps that went to her head, because she lived life her way, taking no prisoners and making no apologies.
Lady Iola was daring, bold and vivacious. She was a flapper girl and a scandal in her small South Carolina hometown. She bobbed her hair, she went to wild parties, she rode down Main Street standing on the running board of handsome boys’ cars. She tinted her cheeks with red crepe paper when makeup was forbidden. And she married my handsome grandfather not once, but twice.
All of these stories she shared with me, and I thought I knew her well. She lived into her 90s, growing more tempestuous and demanding as the years went by. She had a tongue that could soothe in one moment, cut you to the quick in the next.
Not long before her death, Lady Iola gave me something special: her combination scrapbook and journal. In those pages, I discovered a woman I’d never known. Inside the book were vintage Valentine’s Day cards from boys she’d known and loved, well-read letters from friends and beaus, and photographs I’d never seen: my grandmother as a young bathing beauty, a flapper, a World War II single mother, a 40s glamour girl. There was even a card from my grandfather mourning the death of a premature baby, which was a sorrow she never shared. I read the pages and mementos time and again, discovering new secrets, new facets of the woman I thought I’d known so well. I was proud and honored that she’d shared such private memories with me.
Reading my grandmother’s journal prompted me to build a journal of my own. For me, it’s a record of my past — a way to go back in time to relive moments, some happy and some less so. It’s the story of triumphs and failures, of memories tender and terrible, of friendships won and lost, of good boyfriends and bad breakups. Like my grandmother, I’ve saved cards and letters, remembrances of people who wandered into my life for a short time as well as those who entered and stayed. There are trinkets too: a dried homecoming mum, ribbon still attached, from the first boy I ever dated; tickets to the Broadway play I attended with a college beau; tickets to my first college football game; playbills from shows attended with my husband.
What will happen to my journals? Perhaps they’ll go to an as-yet-to-be-born grandchild. Perhaps they’ll go to my daughter. I hope whoever reads them is as entranced as I was by my grandmother’s journal, for they’ll tell the story of a woman who was more complex, more unique and, yes, more interesting than she might have sometimes seemed — a woman who was loving but flawed and who lived a rich life during the dash.